For Me, For You

 I would love to compose, for You,

A beautiful symphony.

I would love to paint, for You,

A wondrous masterpiece.

I would love to perform, for You,

An eloquent soliloquy.

All for You.  

 

But my song always ends

In painful cacophony.

My colors bleed into

Chaotic incoherency.

My feeble voice utters words

 Lacking profundity.

I’ve nothing to give. 

 

 And you take my broken chords

And compose a beautiful symphony.

With My muddled hues

You paint a wondrous masterpiece.

You take my simple words

And perform an eloquent soliloquy.

And you give them to me

To give to You.

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Why Did God Plant the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

     Sin opened the door for all kinds of evils, injustices and sufferings, from natural disasters to tyranny to terminal disease. The skeptic observes tragedy and inhumanity and concludes that God is either unloving or powerless. If God is loving and all-powerful, then why does He allow genocide in Rwanda and Hurricane Katrina? If He is all-powerful, He could stop these things. If He is loving, He would want to. How would you answer the skeptic? Why did God plant the tree of knowledge of good and evil and allow the opportunity for sin and evil and suffering? Theologians and philosophers and other people a million times smarter than I am have pondered this question as their life’s work. So, I am not so arrogant as to believe I have the answer. I do have a suggestion, but it is merely a suggestion.
     Before I make my case, I would like to recommend that you wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering before you find yourself in the midst of it, for a few reasons. 1) When you face profound disappointment and pain, the big-picture answers sound trite and clichéd. When my wife and I lost our daughter, it was not helpful to hear that God had a plan. We knew it was true, but we were not able to accept the reality of it because we were grieving; and we needed to grieve. 2) Our personal experiences tend to breed biases in our worldview. Without answers established before entering suffering, we will likely interpret God’s story in light of our experiences rather than interpreting our experiences in light of God’s story. In other words, we become the starting point for understanding suffering instead of starting with the goodness and love of God. 3) Emotional stress and trauma shrinks our world down to the tragedy we are facing. When we endure suffering, the periphery disappears. All of our attention focuses on our circumstances. When this happens, we cannot see the bigger picture, much less make sense of it. We need to carry solid answers into suffering, not that they will alleviate the pain and sorrow, but that they will guard our faith from being shipwrecked in a sea of confusion and doubt.
     What if God had not planted the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What if He created a universe in which there was absolutely no potential for sin and its tragic consequences? We would enjoy the beauty of God’s creation free of poison ivy, thunderstorms and pollutants. Relationships would be lasting, fulfilling and unbroken. No fear. No crime. No disease. No sin. No need for comfort. No need for justice. No need for healing. No need for grace and mercy. Do you see my point?
I think a world without sin and pain would fall short of displaying the glory of God. Tragedy sucks, but through it we experience God in ways that we never could if tragedy did not exist. It is through suffering that we have the opportunity to learn of God’s great love for us as individuals as He comforts and sustains. Weakness allows us to know His strength. We would know nothing of the merciful nature of God if sin had never gained entrance into the world. Does this mean that God delights in sin and tragedy? Absolutely not. But He does delight in being our comfort. The two are exclusive. I hate it when my wife hurts. When she does hurt, I want my shoulders to be the ones she cries on. I want to be the one with whom she shares her hurts. I hate seeing her cry. I love being the one to hold her until she is done. 
     Sin and suffering are canvases on which God completes His self-portrait that was begun in the perfection of creation. I realize this is probably not the most comforting thought if you are currently hurting. But this life is God’s story, and in your suffering, He desires to display His comfort, His healing and His love.

 

Why?

     I think we have let a scientific age of humanism hi-jack the conversation concerning the biblical creation story. We have allowed the world to frame the discussion of origins in terms of “how.” We have willingly entered this arena and engaged in the “how” discussion by fighting in the field of science. 

     Scientific theories are the creeds of secular humanism. Science is the means by which secular humanists feed their hope in man’s ability to conquer all and rise above our humanity. When we go toe-to-toe with humanistic culture armed with science, we may just be involved in a counter-productive endeavor. Even if we were to win the argument over origins, we would have done so in a manner that would feed the secular humanist hope. We would have reinforced the assertion that man is capable of unlocking the greatest mysteries of the universe through scientific rigor. I believe there is a more profound question in the creation story than how. Why? Why would an all-powerful, completely self-sufficient, happy God create? Why does the universe exist? 

     This is really the question that lies beneath the surface of the scientific facade. If secular humanists can prove that a random string of natural events brought the universe and life into existence, then there is no great purpose, no over-arching story that gives life a meaningful context. Man is the pinnacle of authority. If all is the result of random-ness, then the events of our lives are random and each of us are left to do with our lives as we deem best. We are 6.5 billion individuals living 6.5 billion individual stories which in no way contribute to any kind of meta-narrative. We are disconnected entities and then we die. 

     As a result, the great optimism for humanity held by secular humanists has lead us head-long into a great despairing of our humanity. With no shared story by which life may be contextualized, there is no basis for understanding. How can I possibly enter into another person’s story when there are no great themes to connect us? While I may experience pain and you may experience a similar circumstance, my pain is completely unique. My pain occurs in my story. My individual experiences and emotional make-up causes me to feel and respond in my own individual way. You could not possibly understand how this pain feels to me. Likewise, I cannot understand how your pain feels to you. We are all imprisoned by our own individuality. 

     If, however, there is a Creator who created for a purpose, then we have at least one point of connection for understanding. It is then imperative that we seek that purpose and enter into the story of God and humanity.

 

 

 

Unconditional Election and the Eternal Nature of God

My theology class has me thinking about the doctrine of unconditional election.  I started thinking about eternity and how that fits in with God’s sovereignty and man’s free will in salvation.  So here it goes.

God is eternal.  He is not bound by time.  Time is a creation of God.  In Genesis 1:14, God created the “lights in the expanse of the heavens.”  The purpose of these lights was not merely to illuminate the world, but also to regulate and measure the seasons, days and years.  Time did not exist before creation.  I believe time will also cease to exist in the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.  Revelation 22:5 says, “And night will be no more.  They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”  The lack of necessity for night or sun coincides with the lack of necessity to measure seasons, days and years.  Time is temporary.

The point of this is that God exists in a state of timelessness.  He exists in an infinite moment.  He does not experience succession of moments.  Therefore, when God created the heavens and the earth, would He not also have created all that exists within time?  In other words, God, in His timeless state, created every person and event in what we know as the past, present and future. 

Think of God as the divine Author of the story in which we live.  He conceived of the story in a moment.  He formulated the characters, circumstances, decisions, consequences, etc. in the infinite moment.  Therefore, He is intimately acquainted with every character in the story, even before they are introduced.

Based on this view, I do not see how the view of simple foreknowledge makes much sense.  Many people have the view that God foresees who will believe in Him and, based on that foreseen faith, God then chooses them as His own.  This view supposes that the choices of individuals is a future event to God.  But if God is timeless, He knows no future.  The individual’s birth, decision regarding salvation, and death all exist within God’s infinite moment.

Thus, as the eternal creator, God creates individuals, decisions, circumstances, etc. at the moment He created the universe.  As the divine Author, our stories are not merely things that happen to created beings.  They are part of the creation, itself.  God sovereignly elects to salvation by virtue of the creation.

Does this rob man of free will?  Not at all.  The will of man is not an independent agent.  The will is a servant of an individual’s desires.  Romans 6:20 says, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.”  This means that sin operates as the primary determiner of desires in the natural life of man.  The will always freely chooses on the basis of the desires of the individual.  If a person’s desires are sinful, then the will opts for sin infallibly.  Romans 6:22 says, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”  God does not exert Himself on the will of man, but upon his desires.  God creates within the individual a new nature which desires God.  Therefore, the will freely chooses in accord with these new desires.  So why do Christians still sin?  Because we carry with us both the natural self, which is always churning out sinful desires, and the new nature, which whispers desires for God.  This creates in the Christian the experience described by Paul in Romans 7.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The will works exactly the same way in the natural life as it does in the regenerated life.  It serves the desires.  The will is always free, and always freely chooses that which the individual desires.  Therefore, God is absolutely sovereign in the salvation of people.  It is also true that people freely choose or reject His salvation.

 

No Other Gods

God is the standard by which humanity is measured. He defines goodness. Jesus said in Mark 10:18, “No one is good – except God alone.” Human claims of holiness must be evaluated by comparison to God’s holiness. Leviticus 19:2 says, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” God has set the bar at perfection. Jesus made this crystal clear in Matthew 5:48 when He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
     If God Himself is humanity’s standard for living, then why did He give the Ten Commandments? God is invisible. It is difficult, at best, to emulate someone you cannot see. In giving the Ten Commandments, God set forth more than a civil and moral document; He gave word pictures of Himself. God described His values and character through the precepts of the law. The Ten Commandments show us what God is like so that we may know how to display Him for His enjoyment and for light to a world of darkness.
     The first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is not merely first numerically, but also foundationally. It reveals what God values most, which is God. While mankind is the beneficiary of His grace, mercy and kindness, God’s end goal is His glory. The Israelites received deliverance through the plagues with which God afflicted Egypt. However, God expressed His purpose for the plagues in Exodus 9:16. He told Pharaoh through Moses, “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God graciously offers salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. Yet, our salvation is not the ultimate goal of Jesus’ death. After Jesus told Andrew and Philip of His imminent death in John 12, He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (verses 27 and 28). God is God-centered.
     It is good and just and right that God is God-centered. If God were to deem anything as greater or more valuable than Himself, then either His judgment must come into question or this greater thing is God. God must value that which is most valuable. He must seek glory for that which is most glorious. It is also loving that God is God-centered. God is the greatest good. When He calls us to seek His glory, He is calling us to pursue that which is most satisfying to the human heart. When we find our joy and satisfaction in God, He receives glory in being the source or our greatest joy and satisfaction. In seeking His own glory, God is satisfying His creation.
While self-centeredness in God is righteous, it is wicked in men. The universe was created to work with God as the center and creation in orbit around Him. When people attempt to place themselves at the center, it upsets creation’s balance. As long as Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God, depending upon Him for everything, all of creation dwelt in harmony. The serpent’s temptation offered Adam and Eve “wisdom” of their own. They would no longer need God to be their source. When they chose the path of self-direction, creation was thrown into disorder. The universe will not recover until God sets everything back in its proper orbit. In the meantime, Romans 8:22 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The whole creation is awaiting the day when God is the center again. 
Even though God is the greatest good, it is a difficult matter to live God-centered. The world is full of shiny trinkets that catch our eyes and draw our attention from Him. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis said, “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” It is just easier to settle for readily attainable pleasures that shout their demands for our affections than it is to hold out for that which whispers sure promises of true and eternal satisfaction.
     God’s command to forsake all other gods and honor Him as superior to all else is the basis for the rest of the of the commandments. Since God is infinitely superior to anything and everything in creation, then there is nothing in existence that can materially represent Him. Misusing the name of God trivializes His supremacy. Observing the Sabbath is the discipline of trusting God as the One who satisfies all our needs. Parents are the conduits of God’s care and guidance in the lives of children. To dishonor parents is to reject God’s sovereign leadership. Murder does violence against the Source of all life. Marriage is to be a living, breathing illustration of the love between God and His people. Adultery is the scorning of the lover of our souls. Theft is denying God’s faithfulness in providing for our needs. In giving false testimony, man attempts to usurp the flawless justice of God. When we covet we express dissatisfaction with God’s gifts to us and seek our satisfaction outside of Him.
God demands that we join Him in His God-centeredness. The sad result of fixing our orbit around anything other than Him is the forfeiture of the only satisfaction for the deepest longings of our souls now and for eternity.

 

Loving God

     So, John Piper has a book out called “Think,” which I am very anxious to read.  In working on the church plant, I have been thinking a lot about how we should develop disciples.  Most of my thoughts have centered upon the Great Commandment.  How do we help each other grow in loving God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength? I am convinced that the fight of faith is fought on the battlefield of desire.  It is the heart.  James’ letter says that sin is born out of our desires.  We need to want God more than we want to fulfill our natural desires. 

 

     The problem is in cultivating spiritual desires.  How do you want God more than you want anything else? When we try to live out of spiritual desires we move out of the heart and into the realm of the will, or the soul.  The problem with this is that this is really where our natural desires live.  My will has 40 years of sinful experiences to fight against a spiritual willing. 

 

      We obviously cannot begin with strength or actions.  We should do what is right regardless of how we feel about it, but we cannot count on this approach to help us love God with all of our hearts.  Right actions will not only fail to cause us to desire God more, it could harden our hearts.

 

      So our hearts need something beneath them to feed spiritual desire.  Our wills need something beneath them to strengthen the spiritual against the natural.  Our physical lives need something beneath them for motivation that does not ultimately damage our hearts.

 

      In Romans 8, Paul speaks of the mind set on the flesh and the mind set on the Spirit.  He is not talking about merely thinking fleshly or spiritual thoughts.  He is talking about worldview or lifeview.  The fleshly mind views everything through fleshly lenses.  The spiritual mind views everything through spiritual lenses.  Then in Romans 12, Paul says that we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  We need a new worldview.  We need our default settings altered from natural to spiritual. 

 

     In learning, soaking in, breathing, Scripture, we see God’s perspective on life.  The goal is to so identify ourselves with His perspective that we adopt that perspective for ourselves.  Knowing how God has designed life to work, knowing His promises and the benefits afforded us by the Gospel, we have fuel for godly desires.  We have motivation for our spiritual willing and we have energizing purpose for our working.

 

      We must commit ourselves to learning what the Bible means, not what the Bible means to us.  If we only search for what the Bible means to us, our worldview or mindset will remain unchanged.  We see not only the world but the Bible and our God through fleshly lenses.  The flesh will never help us understand the things of the Spirit.  In fact, our flesh fights to keep us operating in the shallow, bumper sticker Christianity that plagues the church in America.

 

 

Injustice

All the talk of social justice in our culture has me thinking about the nature of injustice.  What is injustice?  How do we define the greatest injustice versus a lesser injustice.  Stuff like that.  Is this nerdy?

I looked up the dictionary definition of injustice.  The definitions are not very helpful.  They say things like, “That which violates justice or fairness.  Or, “That which violates the rights of another person.”  The first definition does not define anything.  It is really just a restatement of the word.  The second definition may be more helpful.  I wonder, though, if this is a definition derived from a particular cultural perspective.  Would a less individualistic, more family or community oriented culture define injustice this way?  Why is injustice in this definition centered upon individual personhood?

I would like to offer a different definition.  Injustice is the violation of that which is good.  The greater the good that is violated, the more grievous the injustice.  By “good,” I mean that which is inherently good apart from any preferential judgment.  I know relativists won’t like this definition, but so be it.  There are things which are good whether or not they are recognized as such.  Life is good.  Societal order is good.

Cultures develop their own priorities of goodness.  In the current American culture, we esteem individual personhood as, if not the greatest good, then certainly close to it.  I think this is the reason for the second dictionary definition of injustice.  Since we value individualism so highly, anything done to diminish the individual must be a great injustice.  This individualistic priority also underlies much of the activism taking place in opposition to injustice in our world today.  If individual humanity is among the greatest goods, then slavery, oppression, and poverty are among the worlds greatest evils.

While I am in whole-hearted agreement with the pursuit of justice in our world, I believe there is a better foundation for its pursuit than the goodness of human individuals.  I stand on the position that there is a God.  He is a God of justice.  He hates injustice and oppression, but not primarily because of His esteem for human individuals.  He does love humanity.  This is just not the foundation of His hatred of injustice.  There is a greater good violated by injustice.

Many people struggle with the idea of a good and loving God when they read the Old Testament.  There are accounts of Israel, at the direction and command of God, wiping out whole peoples: men, women, and children.  How can this God claim to hate injustice?

If injustice is the violation of that which is good, then we must consider, what is the highest of all goods?  If humanity is the highest of all goods, then God is guilty of injustice in His commands to Israel concerning these foreign nations.  However, if there is a greater good than humanity, then we must consider this before condemning God. 

God, by definition, must necessarily be the highest good, otherwise that which is of greater good would be God.  If God is the highest good, then that which violates His essence, character, and goodness is the greatest injustice.  And if God is infinitely good, then that which violates His infinite goodness is injustice of infinite magnitude.  An injustice of infinite magnitude is worthy of infinite punishment.  The peoples which Israel was commanded to destroy were guilty of hundreds of years of this kind of infinite injustice.  It would be a greater injustice for God to allow His own goodness to be violated indefinitely.

How does this serve as foundation for my concern for social justice?  Because life is an essential element of God’s goodness.  He is the source and sustainer of all life.  When one person or a government thinks so little of life so as to enslave, or sell, or oppress people who have been given life by God, this is a violation of the goodness of God and is therefore the most grievous of injustices. 

Christians love people, not because of any inherent goodness in humanity, but because God loves humanity despite our lack of goodness.  This is also elemental in God’s goodness.  We have recognized our own unworthiness of God’s affection, yet are the beneficiaries of His affections.  In fact, Jesus suffered the greatest of injustices in being sentenced to death in a kangaroo court and executed.  He suffered injustice as a demonstration of His love for unjust people who violate His goodness.